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Largo commissioners debate billboard tactic

Published Sep. 13, 2005

The billboard issue has become more complicated in Largo now that some city commissioners want to mimic tactics Clearwater officials used to get rid of the outdoor advertisements.

An ordinance went into effect in July making billboards illegal in Largo. But instead of enforcing that ordinance, city officials have been trying to negotiate with Eller Media, the company that owns more billboards in Largo than any other.

The compromise: Largo wants outdoor advertisers to remove 22 billboards from the West Bay Drive and Clearwater-Largo Road redevelopment areas where the city is spending millions to create a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. Those companies could then put up the 22 billboards in commercial areas in Largo.

Eller owns 12 of the billboards in the redevelopment area and about 45 throughout the city. The compromise with Eller will set the stage for negotiations with a number of outdoor advertisers, administrators say.

Community Development Director Ric Goss brought the issue before commissioners again Tuesday, only to be surprised by some commissioners who had other negotiations in mind.

Commissioners Bob Jackson and Marty Shelby had heard how Clearwater officials backed their billboard ordinance and became embroiled in a legal battle with Eller. Clearwater and Eller reached a settlement in January in which Eller agreed to remove 19 billboards and relocate two.

In exchange, Eller can put similar ads on bus shelters in Clearwater, as part of a program between Eller and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

"What bothered me was when I realized the city of Clearwater was able to reduce the number of billboards through the bus shelters," Jackson said Tuesday.

He and Shelby wanted to find out if a similar arrangement were possible in Largo. The problem is, Largo already gave consent for advertisements on bus shelters. Jackson suggested prohibiting advertisements on future shelters, giving Largo the bargaining chip Clearwater used.

Without that chip, Largo is stuck with more than 80 billboards, Jackson said. "In addition we're stuck with all the billboards on bus shelters."

Eller is not an unreasonable company, Shelby said. "But by the same token, if we roll over, they will take whatever we give them."

Shawn Ulrich, a spokeswoman for Eller, said she was surprised by the suggestions regarding bus shelters. Eller has about 15 bus shelter ads in Largo, Ulrich estimated. Mayor Thomas Feaster was opposed to bringing bus shelters into the negotiations, saying he did not want to renege on the city's 1995 agreement to allow the ads. Despite objections from Shelby and Jackson, Goss will negotiate further with Eller and other outdoor advertisers. By July, a year after the law went into effect, commissioners will review the negotiations again. If no compromise is reached by then, Feaster said the commission won't wait any longer. They will vote on whether to enforce the ordinance as it stands or to repeal it. "It's been going on too long," Feaster said.